How Do We Persuade People About Casual Racism and Sexism? - Higher Education
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How Do We Persuade People About Casual Racism and Sexism?

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As a teacher of advocacy, I wonder what is the most effective means of persuading people they should not engage in offensive speech and objectionable expression. I mean that sincerely, not rhetorically: what will prompt people to choose not to use racial slurs or sexist images, not because they felt coerced but from a change of heart? For me, the issue is not whether they possess the right to utter the word or display the picture — for I would not hesitate to support them against censorship. The issue is whether it is right to do so.

Here are a couple of examples.

There was for years a popular Philadelphia cheesesteak vendor called “Chink’s.” The name was not a typographical error, not a reference to a weakness in armor. It was, instead, an inside joke, since the proprietor, who was not Asian, grew up being told he his eyes were “slanty”. On a recent trip to my hometown of Detroit, I was taking photographs of a cityscape that defies expectations, and I noticed an automobile repair shop specializing in hydraulics with an oversize version of that silhouette of a buxom high-heeled woman decorating the side of the building for no apparent reason. The figure, the iconic “mud flap girl” adorning trucks, has nothing to do with the work of the establishment. It is presumably a means to attract attention from passers-by.

People must like these phenomena. They are not boycotting the businesses after all.

Thus the marketplace might not remedy the problems. Some consumers react positively to prejudice, as when housing segregation accelerates the appreciation in value of their property, and, in fact, there can be enough who share these troubling sentiments to cater to. Others are indifferent about bias and intolerance, which may be better for lack of intent but not different in consequences.

You — or I — also may wish to avoid seeming to be a scold, humorless about the trivial. Yet I am unwilling to be blasé, because genuine harm ranges along a spectrum starting at the micro aggression.

Frank H. Wu

There are cases with Asian American perpetrators too. In 2002, controversy broke out over a “Ghettopoly,” a parody of the popular Monopoly boardgames, featuring African-American cultural references, or, more accurately, the crass denigration of African-American cultural references. The creator was an Asian immigrant. While his joke led critics to suggest he put together a “Chinkopoly” to sell as well, showing how vicious cycles of ill will can be started, he had no remorse and went on to roll out a “redneck” edition, all of which brought litigation from the owners of the original Monopoly intellectual property.

The challenge is explaining to such an entrepreneur that his product is not only offensive but also not funny at all. It deserves to fail.

Consumers have power. Nowhere has that become more apparent than in China. The prospect is daunting: a billion purchasers, include the new middle class, connected via social media, accepting or rejecting a brand based on whether it is perceived as friendly or hostile to the culture. Mercedes and Dolce & Gabbana, respectively, have had to confront the anger over remarks as careless as disrespectful. In the former instance of the luxury car company, the company fired the manager; in the latter of the fashion house, they said an account had been hacked and an impersonator was responsible.

These themes are perennial. In the fourth century B.C., Greek playwright Aristophanes wrote the comedy Lysistrata about the power of women to influence men to end the Peloponnesian war by withholding sex. The organizers within both the city-states involved in the conflict, Athens and Sparta, have difficulty enforcing discipline. Peace prevails, however, thanks to the leaders’ lust for a goddess of reconciliation who appears in the form of naked girl. That was radical for its time, albeit as a male interpretation of feminine wiles. The script continues to be staged as a demonstration of how decision-makers can be won over.

There are scholars who promote the “contact” hypothesis: the notion that interaction among persons on diverse backgrounds, especially as equals in structured situations, is the best method of achieving societal progress. The idea is credited to Gordon Allport. The heavily-cited psychologist published his book Nature of Prejudice in 1954, the same year as the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision. The proposition that we should interact for the mutual good is consistent with our celebration of civic culture in general.

Perhaps that should be emphasized again in education: the combined notions of a social contract and the public square. Education formerly had the function of preparing citizens. We are more likely to behave decently toward one another if we believe in reciprocity and openness. In communities such as on a campus, each of us realizes we will encounter one another again and again. Although I am not sure I have the answer about how to instill values of inclusion, I am sure the question must be asked. How to persuade persons who damage our ideals yet insist on their innocence?

Frank H. Wu is the William L. Prosser Distinguished Professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law. You can follow him on Twitter @Frankhwu

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